When I first came to Germany thirteen years ago, I was a nineteen year old college sophomore on my first trip outside North America. Five years ago, I returned to study for my master’s degree at the University of Siegen. For much of the time since, I’ve thought about whether or not I could see myself becoming a permanent expat like so many people I’ve met over the years. But I recently decided that the time had come to return home to the United States and say goodbye to Germany.
Once you’re halfway through your first semester at a German university, you may forget that you’re studying in a foreign country. You drink the same coffee, go to the library, sit in class and, at the end of the day, relax with friends and Netflix (although your reverie may be disturbed by the disquieting lack of selection). But there are a few (slightly annoying) quirks about studying in Germany that will inevitably bring you back to reality.
Book bags are banned in libraries
No backpacks in the library! Are you kidding me? Are student stealing so many books that this is necessary? Most every library in Germany has areas at the front of the library for students to leave their backpacks, usually requiring a euro or two as a deposit. Once you drop off your bag, you use one of their grocery-store-style plastic baskets to carry books in or out. Some universities even take it one step further, with an employee whose singular task is check your basket and make sure you aren’t stealing books. Now as ridiculous as this seems, it tells you something about university culture here. Library books are taken seriously. We may joke about 20 year overdue fines in the States, but it’s no joke in Germany. Continue reading
A few months ago, a list published by former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims started making the rounds on social media. In it, she expounds on her list of the basic skills everyone should have by age 18. Reading it, I realized that it wasn’t until I started studying in Germany that I gained the skills on the list.
Even if you’ve been living in German for 30 years and haven’t spoken a word of English in 20, it still feels good to catch a non-dubbed version of a recent release in the theater. Last summer, during a 3 week holiday to Berlin, I spent about half of my time in the Cinestar Original theater on Potsdammer Platz, a cinema that only features original versions of new releases. Back home in Cologne, I’m also a bit spoiled by the options available, which means that I’m able to see almost every movie that comes out Stateside.
For many high school students in the United States, the college process begins in middle school, and all college-bound students need to get serious by the time they reach their junior year. For American students interested in continuing their studies in Germany, though, this timeline looks very different. While their applications to US colleges will go out around a year before they begin their studies, many of the deadlines for German universities don’t come up until after they graduate. So when should American students start planning in earnest to get ready to study in Germany?
Most Americans who decide to apply to study in Germany are drawn by the low (or free) tuition, but another aspect of the system that is equally, if not more, appealing is the simplified admissions process. Unlike the holistic approach of the American system, which weighs many factors when deciding whether or not to admit a student, zulassungsbeschraenkt (admission restricted) university study programs generally simply the process through the use of a Numerus Clausus (NC) designation, which restricts admission to students with a minimum G.P.A.
While on a recent college visit with some students from the US, the topic of German food came up. We’d already experienced many culinary delicacies on our way, and they wanted to know what my favorite was. One mainstay came quickly to mind: Döner Kebab. This got quite a few skeptical looks. “Isn’t that Turkish?” one of the students asked. Yes and no, I said, and the explanation says a lot about modern Germany.
I’ve been living in Germany for 4 years now, three of which I’m spent teaching first year students at a private university in Cologne. More than anything else, this experience has taught me humility; I realize now just how thankful I should be that I’m not 19 anymore. Teaching at the university has given me the opportunity to speak to thousands of kids, most of whom exhibit a curiosity bordering on incredulity when I tell them I’m from Chicago, a reaction that I still can’t really understand. More often than not, their general interest in my background sparks a conversation about our two countries, the most interesting parts of which relate to how my students see themselves and their country.